Running to Nowhere : The Central American Refugee Crisis

Christina Simons

2015 - Ongoing

Mexico; Honduras; Texas, United States

Central American migrants have been making the perilous journey through Central America and Mexico for over 30 years. It is an old refugee story but in the current political climate it is not only ongoing but heightened by the family separations and mass deportations from the United States. Yet the numbers of people making this journey has not dwindled.

The journey across borders is made by various means. The environmental hazards of dehydration, food and water contamination, sunburn and disease, as well as the physical dangers of the trains, all come second to the risk of theft, rape, violence, kidnapping, and murder. Why would anyone risk such dangers?

In the 1980s ‘Mara’ street gangs originated in Los Angeles. Having fled from civil wars in Honduras and El Salvador, many joined the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) or Calle 18 (M18) gangs. In the 90s, the US government deported gang members back to their respective countries.

Now, decades later, the relocated ‘Maras’ are running poverty-stricken Honduras and El Salvador into desperate circumstances. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in Central America with the hopes for a safer life risking their lives to get to somewhere else, only to face separation, deportation or go into hiding.


My work on this issue commenced in 2015 with an assignment with Medicos Sin Fronteras at their projects in refugee centres in Tenosique and Ixtapec in Mexico. It was profound to me to see hundreds of traumatised people mainly from Honduras and El Salvador, with stories so often the same: all trying to flee the violence and terror they experienced in their home countries. After meeting the individuals … the small children whose parents haunted eyes told me that they only wished for a safe future for their children; what started as an assignment for MSF (Medicos Sin Fronteras Mexico – Doctors Without Borders) evolved into a passionate pursuit to share and expose the … Why. Why… they would flee and what are they running from.

It was clear that my devotion to document ‘the why’ would require an expedition lasting a few years and which took me all over Mexico, Honduras and Texas, following refugees on their journey meeting people who want to flee, are fleeing, have been deported as well as those in hiding. I have met ‘coyotes’ (those who transport the refugees across the borders) and I have met the people who the refugees are fleeing from. I visited a coroner’s office and the John Doe gravesites in Texas where hundreds of Central Americans finish their journeys in the worst possible way. Yet the better outcomes are grim when faced with brutal deportation policies and family separations. Between 2015 when I began this story it is now an even more desperate story than when I first began.

There is a great deal of coverage on the border issues of the United States and Mexico and while covered by the media in parts, there is little enquiry into why Central Americans are fleeing to the United States to begin with. This story is rather the sum of its parts, radiating impact on several countries, crossing many borders. This is my point of difference in my story telling style; a holistic coverage of this issue across all its borders, creating a clear vision of how and why this is happening by focusing on the individuals who are impacted and suffering through this crisis.

The endeavor is that this body of work would humanize the individuals and their circumstances to create exposure and awareness in order to generate compassion in a era where compassion fatigue, racism and intolerance ensues and with new found insight these refugees are better received in our respective countries with greater understanding and empathy.

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  • Juan is on the run from his life as a double agent for the Mara gangs in Honduras.

    He was born and lived on the streets with his mother until she died when he was 6 years old. He never knew his father. This is when one the Mara groups came and forced him to become a spy, informing on the other major Mara gang. In order to cope, he took drugs and self harmed, evidence of which he bares today in rows and rows of cigarette burns all over his body.

    He's seen death, he's caused death and he has lived a family-less life since he was 6. He's never known peace or love. And with his somewhat haunted eyes he said "I have no family and I have nothing. I have no one to live for but I want to live and I'm tired of death and violence. I know I am a good person in my heart and I just want to live a good life; a peaceful life. I want to know what it feels like to love.' He just wants to live in peace, to feel love for the first time in his 20 years.

  • Migrants passing on “La Bestia”: the beast, a freight train that traverses Mexico from the southern to the northern borders of Mexico. The journey is fraught with danger least of all from simply falling off and being injured on the train, but the route it takes is littered with migration police, cartel and military all of who want to exploit those riding it.

  • Elder Anibar (23yo) is from Honduras. He waits for 'La Bestia'

    Elder has travelled with 6 other family members to be safe.There was a lot of crime in Honduras. The maras threatened us so we had to leave. They are headed north toward the US.After Elsy (55yo - grandmother) fell off La bestia and hurt her ankle she is now returning to Honduras with three year old Joshua. The trip is very difficult for the old and young.

  • Eric is 35 years old. He is a 'coyote' or 'pollero'; meaning someone who transports or traffics people from Honduras to the United States illegally. He's done the trip 12 times and usually takes two or three people on each trip. He was kidnapped by the Zetas in 2007 for 7 days and by The MS13 in Mexico in 2004.His brother-in-law, Mauricio, was a coyote as well but quit his occupation when he witnessed the murder of a child by the cartel. He had tried to intervene but they beat him up and pushed their fingers into his eyes, blinding him for two days and that was when he escaped.

  • A group of refugees float on the Suchiate river border between Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas Mexico and Tecun Uman, Guatemala. They travel by two giant inner tubes with planks of wood tied to them to make a raft.Their journey across the river is taken only 300 meters from the international bridge, which is the legal access to Mexico.

  • Juan Carlos was shot 16times and survived. He sits with his wife Yolani

    Juan Carlos (28) and Yolani lagos (24) are from SanPedro Sula, Honduras, and are taking refuge in Guadelupe refuge centre Reynosa, Mexico where Juan spends his days cooking for other migrants deported from the United States. They didn't want to leave Honduras but they and their families were repeatedly threatened by the Maras. Eventually they found him and shot him 16 times. Amazingly he survived while the maras believed he was dead.They have spent 16 months travelling to get to Reynosa. While they travelled they stopped a lot to work especially because of Juan's injuries. Now they are trying to get asylum in the United States but they fear deportation as it is now indiscriminate. Even those who have papers are being deported. And if they get deported back to Honduras they face certain death. They just want to be free to live a normal peaceful life. So they will stay in the refuge in Reynosa until they can get asylum legally.

  • Olman Orlando aka 'Danger' shows his lip tattoo. He is a MS13 gang member and a 33 year old Honduran Prisoner. He was convicted of homicide and sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was initiated into the gang MS13 when he was 8 years old and was tattooed on his forehead at the age of 13. In order to stay alive inside prison, he has had all his MS13 related tattoos tattooed over to project neutrality. He says he no longer wishes to be with the MS13 gang. 'Once a member always a member' so he will not survive life in Honduras once he is released. Therefore, upon release, his hope is to travel to the United States as a refugee, with his 4 small children and wife and try to start a fresh life there.

  • Rebecca (one-year-old) sits on the bottom bunk that she and her mother Sandra share with all their worldly belongings in the Alberge in Ixtapec. Sandra is traveling with her mother, Maribelle 39, and her one-year-old daughter, Rebeca. They lived in El Salvador. They left because the maras took her brother and so they left to live somewhere else in the same town but then the mara found them again. Her mother had a store and the mara was demanding money and then the maras killed her brother. They could no longer live with the violence in El Salvador and decided to flee. They ran from immigration twice and traveled over the course of 15 days to Ixtapec, via taxi, combi, bus and walking. Of the 15 days they walked for 8. They are heading to Monterrey but she is waiting at the Alberge for her daughter’s birth certificate as she is having difficulty with immigration because she doesn’t have one.

  • Wendy an ex-MS13 member,“I wanted to kill my sister, so I did and before I could kill my borther I was arrested.”

    When she was 12 years old both her parents were arrested and then she went to live with her sisters. Her brother tried to rape her, so she began to turn to the MS13 gang as a family. With them she felt supported.

    Once she became a MS13 member – she started using drugs and so she was locked out of her sister’s house. One night she kicked the door to get in and went to bed. Not long after she heard voices of men who broke into the house – all of them raped me and they stole everything. Three days later her sister found her and didn’t believe what she said had happened and accused her of stealing from them. ‘Because they didn’t believe me I wanted to kill my sister, so I did. And before I could kill my brother I was arrested.’

    She then ‘found Jesus’ and so she burnt her MS13 tattoos off herself in order to disassociate with the gangs. Having done this she risks being killed by other MS13 gang members as this is seen as a betrayal of her loyalty to the gang.

    The only tattoo left is “Forgive me mother for my life crazy” Which should read “Forgive me mother for my crazy life.”  Directly translated: "perdona madre mía por mi vida loca"

    This is a very common MS13 tattoo.  It suggests repentance for the life of violence that they have chosen and also asks for forgiveness of their mothers because they cannot leave their gang life as they risk their mothers being killed in retaliation.
    Now Wendy wants to devote her life to Jesus and teach his lessons to help other youth stay out of the gangs

  • A refugee sitting in the Alberge in Tenosique. The wait at the alberge for a refugee visa or a humanitarian visa is up to 3 months and there is no guarantee of one. This sort of physical flux exaserbates the trauma and difficulties refugees have already endured. Thier fate is unknown and possibly means thay will need to retun to where they'd fled.

  • Emerita de Jesús Palma rests in her bed in an Albergue. She is 79 years old and is from El Salvador . Three months ago, she traveled all the way alone from El Salvador to Mexico to find her son who is working in a banana plantation in Chiapas, but she got lost on the way and because of her age she is applying for humanitarian visa as a vulnerable refugee and waiting authorities help to find her son

  • Luis is 47 and is from Guatemala . Two months ago was chased by migration agents near the river and fell down the cliff landing in some rocks. Woke up 9 days later in hospital with half his face paralyzed and four skull fractures. Flesh from his leg had been ripped off.He wants to go to the US to find his son who is in the US army but doesn't know how to find him. He was fine and healthy before this accident. He cried, “this accident, this journey has changed my life forever.'

  • Laura Avila is 51 years old and is from Honduras.

    A year ago she lost her leg on the train La Bestia in Torreon Coahuila because of the accident she has humanitarian visa. Red Cross help her and she spend the first six months in Saltillo, and then was sent to Tapachula by Red Cross to get a prosthetic leg. She said "I left my country to get a better life and I'm going back worse off" She has four daughters and many grand sons

  • Laura squeezes into a Combi. Laura was part of a large group of seven people traveling together who are all from the same neighborhood in San Pedro In Honduras. We followed them from their arrival at the Succhiate river for the next 24 hours. After arriving in Mexico they spent three hours walking through Tapachula in the rain trying to find shelter. After nearly being turned in by a bus driver to the migration police and stranded on the roadside a half an hour walk outside Tapachula.

  • Caught by the Mexican Military two boys will be deported back to Honduras. Two migrant adolescents being escorted by the Mexican Military to the Migrant police for deportation back to Honduras.

  • The unmarked graves of John Does in Texas. The white crosses signify the resting place of John Doe illegal refugees found dead in Texas trying to find refuge in the United States